In the battle of idealism vs. cynicism, the better angels still win

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Are you an idealist … or a cynic? Is it possible to be both? Are the two attitudes polar opposites, or two halves of the same coin?

I’d argue that a cynic is just an idealist who’s been disappointed once too often by reality. Cynicism is the armor the idealist dons after one wound too many.

I’m someone who is not infrequently described as a cynic.

Actually, inside my head, inside I am a wildly idealistic, sentimental soul – a regular cock-eyed optimist.

For example, I fully believe that someday my beloved Philadelphia can become fully what William Penn intended in his holy experiment, the City of Brotherly Love, the Cradle of Liberty for each new era, the Athens of America where arts and democratic dialogue flourish side by side.

I believe this even though I’ve spent half my adult life reporting on the folly, the habitual corruption, the congealed bureaucracy of its city government.

Equally so, I believe that some day my home state, our beloved Pennsylvania, will figure out how to provide a free, thorough and uplifting education to every last one of the commonwealth’s children. I believe this even though I have spent every last year of my adult life covering the state’s pathetic inability to do just that.

I can, and often do, gleefully cite chapter and verse on the greedy, hollow, narcissistic deeds of local politicians. That’s what makes me seem cynical.

But the best part of me remains utterly idealistic about the possibilities of democracy in its American birthplace. This inner voice refuses to abandon hope that next year, next election, next term, things will get better.

Other grist for hope: I’ve been around these folks, these elected officials, long enough to know that, while some of them are just crooks or dopes by, many of them are people who care. They entered public service with the goal of actually … well, serving the public. But corrupt systems grind them down over time. What’s more, I suspect that our own low, cynical expectations of them break down their resistance to temptation.

Here’s a possible analogy: Social research has pretty much established that society’s low expectations of young black males undermines their performance in school. Could it be that our corrosive cynicism about politicians has a similar effect on them?

So here’s my credo of the cynical idealist: Know the history and be wary.

But always, always believe in the chance that next time will be different.

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